Homelessness Prevention Programs Improve Outcomes and Save Money

A study published in Science by William Evans, James Sullivan, and Melanie Wallskog titled The Impact of Homelessness Prevention Programs on Homelessness finds that temporary financial assistance to families at imminent risk of homelessness reduces the likelihood that they will enter a homeless shelter by 76%. The benefits of the temporary financial assistance, including lower shelter costs, lower costs of other public services, and better educational and health outcomes, outweigh the costs.

The study examined the shelter outcomes for 4,448 eligible callers to Chicago’s Homelessness Prevention Call Center (HPCC) who requested assistance for rent or security deposits. Eligible callers had to demonstrate that they could be self-sufficient after the temporary assistance, have an eligible crisis like the loss of a job or a medical emergency, face imminent risk of homelessness, and be in a crisis that the temporary assistance could solve. HPCC referral specialists referred eligible callers to an appropriate agency that provides assistance. The availability homelessness prevention assistance fluctuates from day to day for a number reasons, including openings in counselors’ schedules at local agencies and inconsistent or unpredictable funding streams. This fluctuation means that not all eligible callers received help. The authors compared the shelter outcomes for eligible callers who received assistance to those who did not.

Callers who received assistance were 76% less likely to enter a shelter within six months than those who didn’t. The impact of temporary assistance was greater for individuals with lower-than-median incomes. These individuals were 88% less likely to enter a shelter than low income callers who did not receive help. Assistance did not have a statistically significant impact on shelter outcomes for higher-than-median income families.

The authors estimate that the cost for each homeless spell averted through temporary financial assistance was $10,300 per person, factoring in the operating costs of the call center and of other participating agencies and the financial assistance costs. The authors assert that these costs could be reduced if temporary assistance were better targeted to low income families who are in the greatest danger of homelessness. However, predicting which families will and will not become homeless without assistance is difficult. The cost of temporary financial assistance was outweighed by the benefits of lower shelter costs, lower costs of other public services, and better health and educational outcomes.

The Impact of Homelessness Prevention Programs on Homelessness is available here